Holiday lights on Denver's City and County Building in December 2018.

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News

Ninety-year-old Kay Bell of Westminster is worried about some of her neighbors. They’ve done something that flies in the face of Denver tradition.

They took down their Christmas lights.

“It just suddenly dawned on me that the people who are new in the area are taking their lights down and the people who have lived here a long time are keeping theirs up until after the stock show,” Bell said.

The National Western Stock Show is a Denver institution, one that has endured since 1906. For 16 days in the middle of every January it’s the epicenter of a celebration of the western lifestyle.

Anywhere else in the country, your nosey neighbors wouldn’t bat an eye if you broke out a ladder and started to pull strings of festive lights down after New Year’s. Not in these parts though. Long timers like Bell know that’s not how the Denver metro does things. Those lights stay up until they close the stock show. As with any good tradition though, she doesn’t know how it all started.

“Who made the decision to keep it all up until after the stock show, and when,” she asked Colorado Wonders.

Bell has lived in the same Westminster house since 1958. She can’t quite remember how she and her husband learned about the holiday tradition, but they’ve kept with it all these years. In fact, you’ll have to go farther back than her family’s arrival to get the story.

Former state historian Bill Convery said it all began in 1914. Back in the day, an electrician named David Dwight “D.D.” Sturgeon had a young son (or by some accounts a grandson) who was very sick at Christmastime and couldn’t come downstairs to see the family tree. So, he strung lights together, painted them red and green and draped them on a tree in the front yard so the boy could see it out his window.

“As tradition relates it, that was the first outdoor tree decorated with Christmas lights in the country,” Convery said. “A Denver Post reporter got ahold of the story and began to boost it. And soon the Sturgeon’s neighbors began decorating their trees outdoors. And eventually the whole city took up the tradition.”

Sturgeon became known as Mr. Yuletide, and Denver was dubbed “The Christmas Capital of the World.” The company he founded still serves the city today.

Another electrician had a key role too, Convery said.

At the time, Denver had a city electrician, John Malpiede, who took up Sturgeon’s idea and took off with it. He strung up lights on trees in Civic Center Park and wherever else he could. He eventually got permission and funds to adorn city hall with holiday lights and other decor. That eventually included 10-foot candles, Santa and reindeer and a nativity scene.

That nativity was challenged legally as an inappropriate city endorsement of religion, but in 1986 the Colorado Supreme Court ruled that because it was included with so many secular symbols of the season, a judge ruled it could remain.

So, as Kay Bell asks, who had the bright idea to keep the lights up through the stock show? Unfortunately, Convery said that’s lost to history.

A 1955 article in the Steamboat Pilot noted that the stock show tradition started 12 years earlier — 1943. The article stated city leaders wanted to keep the lights up to welcome the tens of thousands of people who flocked to the stock show. It describes shuttle buses that brought stock show visitors to see the “thrilling” lights and, probably just as important, “other Denver attractions.” The Pilot article noted the city changed the music playing through loudspeakers from Christmas carols to country western. Stock show officials even encouraged visitors to attend matinee events so they could take the tour of the lights in the evening.

There’s no official place to learn about this tradition, except media coverage every few years. Yet, Convery thinks there’s enough history and word-of-mouth to keep it alive.

A few misguided souls have tried to stand in the way of the tradition. Convery noted that Denver Mayor Quigg Newton wanted to revamp the civic center holiday displays in the 1940s. Newton considered the display garish, but citizens were so devoted to it they blocked his plan. And in 2005, when then-Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper tried to change the sign from “Merry Christmas” to “Happy Holidays,” he ran headlong into in a bee’s nest and dropped the idea after an uproar.

Convery astutely points out that “native Denverites are really protective of their traditions.”

“As long as we have people being born and raised in Denver who enjoy the holidays with their families and who keep those lights burning into the end of January,” he said. “We’re always going to have people who honor that and remember our cowtown past.” 

You can do your part, too. When your Christmas lights go up is up to you. Denver won’t judge you if you are a day after Thanksgiving or Dec. 1 person. It only matters when your lights come down — keep ‘em lit through the end of the National Western Stock Show.

Are you curious about something in the Centennial State? Ask us a question via Colorado Wonders and we’ll try to find the answer.